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Response: More on Gas Masks

In her article on Japan’s interwar visual culture, Gennifer Weisenfeld has documented and critically discussed a wealth of interwar images, many of them photographic, that involve gas masks.[1] Among them stands out Masao Horino’s 1936 Gas Mask Parade, a photograph showing a formation of girls marching in school uniforms, with gas masks on their faces. While her material offers a fascinating angle on a local visual culture, Weisenfeld reminds us in a footnote that gas-mask imagery was actually a global phenomenon. The present gloss expands on this footnote, showing that gas-mask imagery was a staple feature of European photo-illustrated magazines. In fact, these were, in certain cases, the source of some of the Japanese images.

A Noel
Figure 1: A. Noël [pseudonym?], cover of Vu

Specifically, some of the Japanese images point to the “usual suspects,” the photo-image factories of the West, in particular the illustrated magazines such as the Parisian Vu, which in January 1931 brought an issue dedicated to the future war. It opened with an editorial by Paul Painlevé, originally a scientist with a prominent political career, now a relatively fresh ex-Minister of War.[2] Painlevé sketched a picture of the future war that he predicted to rest on poison gas deployment against the civilian population. Interestingly, there were also several fictional “reports” in this issue on the character of the future war, stating that a new world war would start in a year or so in the summer of 1932 and continue with a German air raid on Paris on Christmas Day 1932. Gas and incendiary bombardment would be involved in both cases.

It would be interesting to hear from military historians whether the date of this issue of Vu had an immediate political context, however, for our purposes, images are the main point. The issue of Vu under discussion is the “matrix” in supporting its predictions with numerous photomontages revolving around the gas mask.[3] One of them shows a scene from the French parliament filled with gas clouds and the delegates listening to a speech, wearing gas masks; another shows the Parisian Bourse collapsing and gas-masked units aiding the victims; another image juxtaposes a nativity scene by Murillo with a contemporary mother assisting her baby, both with a gas mask. And then there is the photomontage cover with “La Marseillaise,” a monumental sculpture by Francoise Rude from Arc de Triomphe—the revolutionary heroes now have gas masks on their faces (see fig. 1).

Figure 2: Unknown photographer, cover of Vu

In the years to follow, Vu repeatedly ran gas mask covers. Among the classics is the cover of a special issue of December 1932, showing a man with a top hat wearing a gas mask, and the cover of December 1933 showing a photograph of a cavalryman with a gas mask riding a horse with a gas mask (see fig. 2). Vu was influential. The Czech Surrealist Jindřich Štyrský used Vu’s images for dust jackets of books he designed in the 1930s[4] (see fig. 3), but more significantly in the present context, Japanese professionals also knew and used Vu. At least two illustrations Weisenfeld reproduces from the crime photo-magazine Hanzai kagaku from March 1932 are actually from the “matrix” Vu issue of February 1931. The first shows the Murillo montage mentioned above; the other is also from the same issue, where it is captioned “Flirtation” (see fig. 4, upper left).

Figure 3: Jindřich Štyrský, cover of the Czech translation of John Whitaker, Fear Came on Europe.

Although maps of image migration may document interesting networks, perhaps inspiring more research on French-Japanese contacts, the discussion of the gas mask image should not be reduced to a statement of sources and their appropriations. The step from the military gas masks of the 1920s to the civilian phase of the 1930s represents a breaking point in conceptual terms that is perhaps best understood as a step from fear to anxiety, whereby we assume that anxiety is diffuse, omnipresent, based on potentiality, and may affect a whole spectrum of social groups. It is significant that the major tools in this process were precisely illustrated magazines and film media such as newsreels—in other words, mass media. Note that Horino worked for a magazine that was a counterpart of sensational photojournalism like the French Détective, or its clones, e.g., the Polish Tajny detektyw [The Private Eye].

Cover of Vu
Figure 4: A. Noël [pseudonym?], Vu

However, as presented by Weisenfeld, the Japanese gas mask imagery did more than evoke anxiety: it produced “an anonymous, seemingly inhuman monster of erotic curiosity” and “excited the imagination particularly in the context of a widespread Japanese popular culture movement known as ‘ero-guro-nansensu’,” i.e., erotic-grotesque nonsense (Weisenfeld, Gas Mask, 179 and 181). If this description is descriptively adequate, this phenomenon may well be specific to the Japanese situation. True, as noted above, Vu featured an image of “Flirting” in gas masks (Weisenfeld gives its Japanese caption as “Kissing”) and then in 1937 the Czech illustrated magazine Pražský ilustrovaný zpravodaj [Prague Illustrated Reporter] showed a “magrittesque” couple kissing with flu masks on their mouths and a gas-masked crowd in the back watching (see fig. 5), but on the whole, the range of masked situations in Western sources seems to be quite catholic, with erotic imagery being just a subchapter of the whole, and maybe not even a very prominent one. Thus in 1938 the Czech periodical boldly entitled More Rubber—a promotional magazine for customers of a rubber-making factory—shows a group in a shelter playing cards with masks on their faces, the idea being one should keep calm under all circumstances, including a gas attack (see fig. 6). And Arbeiter-Illustrierte Zeitung, a German leftists magazine, brings another popular variant—gas masks for babies (see fig. 7). This breadth of motifs is not unexpected. Photo-illustrated print media were capable of turning virtually anything into a gas-masked mincemeat—men, women, children, animals . . .

Masks, Masks, Masks
Figure 5—Unknown artist, cover of Pražský ilustrovaný zpravodaj [Prague Illustrated Reporter]

By contrast, the force of gas masks in mass media contrasts with their absence in photography outside photojournalism. A quick perusal of period sources of highbrow photography like the French La Photographie or the Czech Obzor fotografický [Photographic Horizon] shows no instances of gas masks in photography in the 1930s. The same holds for the likeliest source one might imagine—Surrealist photography. Although Surrealists photographers were interested in exotic masks (cf. Man Ray) and veiled faces, gas masks do not occur. The Czech Surrealist Jindřich Heisler’s photomontage showing a fully "enchained" female face is one among many brutal facial interventions, but it is not prompted by the perversion of the war—it is intended as an illustration for de Sade’s Justine.[5]

Finally, let me note that the anxiety model of the Western kind seems not to be present in public spaces that were rigorously policed. While military and instructional defense photography is well documented in the Soviet 1930s, there are no images of the public using gas masks in the same way we see, for instance, in Vu. The Soviets apparently practiced a policy geared towards defense readiness without wishing to invoke anxiety. The victorious working class was meant to appear strong and defiant, having nothing to fear.

Figure 6: Unknown photographer, cover of Více gumy [More Rubber]

While this note emphasizes the role of mass media in (co-)shaping cultural values, including modern anxiety, I do not wish to claim that a “low” register automatically obliterates deep issues. Quite to the contrary. The gas mask will always be a mask, with all its cultural implications, intended or unintended, ranging from intersections with the practices of fashion to practices inherent to performances. Yet at the same time the gas mask deeply associates violence—among other things by “extinguishing” one of the central attributes of the living being, the eye. Any violent interventions in the facial area, including masking and the suppression of the eye, are disturbing (see fig. 8), all the same whether art or pulp.

Figure 7: Unknown photographer, “Die Gasmaske fürs Baby"




Figure 8: Unknown photographer, cover of Vu












List of Figures

  1. A. Noël [pseudonym?], cover of Vu vol. 3, 1931, no. 152 (Feb. 11, 1931). 37,0 x 27,3 cm.
  2. Unknown photographer, cover of Vu vol. 6, no. 300 (Dec. 13, 1933). 36,5 x 27,3 cm.
  3. Jindřich Štyrský, cover of the Czech translation of John Whitaker, Fear Came on Europe. Prague, Sfinx Janda, 1937. 21,8 x 14,5 cm (the image uses the cover of Vu et Lu, special issue, March 21, 1936).
  4. A. Noël [pseudonym?], Vu vol. 3, 1931, no. 152 (Feb. 11, 1931), page 181, captioned “Scènes de la guerre future.” 37,0 x 27,3 cm.
  5. fUnknown artist, cover of Pražský ilustrovaný zpravodaj [Prague Illustrated Reporter] 1937, no. 8 (Feb. 25, 1937). 39 x 28 cm. [The caption “Masks, Masks, Masks” continues to say that there is currently a flood of masks of all sorts as seen by the picture of British mailmen during an exercise (background) and a couple kissing with a flu mask (foreground). The latter cannot not stop the bacillus of love, though.]
  6. Unknown photographer, cover of Více gumy [More Rubber], vol. 4, no. 1 (April 15, 1937). 24,5 x 16,5 cm. [The caption states the main purpose of gas attacks is to create panic and demoralize the population. If the defense service does not need one’s help, the best thing to do is to keep calm and to entertain oneself. This is not unusual – even though Madrid is besieged now, many movie theaters keep playing.]
  7. Unknown photographer, “Die Gasmaske fürs Baby – ein Kennzeichen der Stunde. Aufnahme aus der Gasmaskenabteilung eines Warenhauses in USA” [The gas mask for the baby – a sign of present days. A photograph from a gas mask section of a department store in the USA]. Arbeiter-Illustrierte Zeitung (Prag) vol. 14, no. 28 (July 11, 1935). 38,0 x 27,0 cm
  8. Unknown photographer, cover of Vu vol. 3, no. 115 (May 28, 1930). 37 x 27,7 cm. [The caption “Après le duel” continues to say the image was taken after a clandestine duel among the members of a German student Burschenschaft.]


  1. ^ Gennifer Weisenfeld, “Gas Mask Parade: Japan’s Anxious Modernism.” Modernism /modernity 21, no. 1 (2014): 179-199. ( 
  2. ^ On Vu see Michel Frizot and Michel de Veigy, Vu: Le Magazine photographique, 1928-1940, (Paris: Editions de la Martinière, 2009).
  3. ^ The “montages et truquages photographiques”are attributed to a certain A. Noël, possibly a pseudonym, on page 189.
  4. ^ See Jindřich Toman, Photo/montage in Print (Prague: Kant, 2009), 177.
  5. ^ See Jindřich Toman and Matthew Witkovsky, Surrealism under Pressure: Jindřich Heisler 1938-1953 (Chicago: The Art Institute of Chicago, 2012), 71.